The Book of Secrets is the first volume in a new Middle Grade series by A. L. Tait, author of the successful Map Maker Chronicles (which I reviewed here).
Gabe is an unworldly teenager, raised in a monastery since birth. He is entrusted with a secret manuscript that is ‘powerful enough for men to kill over’, and must escape the monastery to keep it safe. He finds himself plunged into a world he knows only through books, and is befriended by a feisty band of girls who save him from capture. Together they unravel the mystery behind the secret manuscript.
The Book of Secrets is a children’s (middle grade) fantasy, reminiscent of medieval times when Kings, Lords and Sheriffs ruled the land. Crossbows, dungeons and castles are an ever-present backdrop to Gabe’s quest to place the manuscript in safe hands, as he is pitted against treachery within the abbey, and Lord Sherborne’s plot to gain power from the King.
With fast-paced action, this book will appeal to both boys and girls, as teenagers outwit villains, and possess morals and a sense of justice superior to many of their elders. There are laughs and tender moments along the way as Gabe learns that the difference between right and wrong is not always straight-cut. He may be unworldly, but Gabe is intuitive and quick to learn. After being rescued by – and reliant on – the girls initially, he gains his own sense of agency, using his intellect and education to help them out of sticky situations in return.
When we meet the four girls who befriend Gabe, they are living a ‘Robin Hood’ type of life in the forest. Home is a large, hollowed out tree. (I would have given anything to play in a tree like that when I was a child!) Witty and resourceful, the girls care deeply for each other. They are powerful, empathetic role models, and the book’s inscription says it all:
‘For all the girls who go where they want, when they want. Or will, one day.’
The girls’ bond with each other makes Gabe think about the meaning of family. Dropped at the Abbey doors as a babe in a basket, he carries a great deal of respect for the monks who have done their best to raise him, but he realises he has not felt the ease of touch Merry and Gwyn (who are sisters) take for granted. Scarlett (their cousin) joined them when she ran away from home to escape an arranged marriage, and Midge was welcomed into the group when they found her tragically orphaned. All characters are well developed, with strong backstories of their own, and each are integral to the story. With the addition of another teenage character, Eddie, towards the end, a formidable team of six is established, ready to take the series on further challenges and adventures.
The climax of the book came as a bit of a shock. I thought ‘no!’ when I saw what was coming for the girls, yet they took the event in their stride, and it showcased Gywn’s bravery and quick thinking.
The mystery behind Aidan’s connection to the book was revealed and I enjoyed the imagination behind the cypher that will eventually lead them to this ‘Aidan’. I particularly loved that it was Midge who cracked the secret code, having never held a book in her life before.
I’m looking forward to the second book in the Ateban Cipher series – there are many story lines to resolve. Will the Abbot, and Merry and Gwyn’s Pa, each make it out alive? Is Brother Malachy too good to be true? Why did Brother Benedict have the Ateban Cipher in the first place, and what is it’s purpose?
As a side note, A. L. Tait co-hosts the hugely popular podcast, So You Want To Be A Writer, with Valerie Khoo. As well as both ladies providing general writing tips and author interviews, Allison Tait will often discuss the writing craft specifically in respect to her novels. Advice on character and setting considerations, technique, plot, edits, marketing etc is given freely, and particular podcast conversations come to mind when reading her books. I’ve had many ‘aha’ moments when I see her words on the page, and the advice she has previously given clicks into place. If you are interested in the craft of writing (or enjoy listening to a bit of banter), I highly recommend this podcast.
Having said that, I’m lucky to have two children who are smack bang in the target reading age for A. L. Tait’s novels – making her books an absolute pleasure to read with my children at bedtime.